Friday, January 28, 2011

"Decoration is a Sin"

In the documentary “Sketches of Frank Gehry,” American architect Frank Gehry (b. 1929) says, “I grew up a modernist. Decoration is a sin.”


A sin, really? Does Mr. Gehry believe that Notre Dame would be better off stripped of its angels and gargoyles? Would he stucco over the arabesques of the Alhambra? Would he delete the ornaments from the Parthenon?


Although I respect some aspects of Mr. Gehry’s work, I disagree with him on this point. In able hands, decoration is a gift, a joy, virtue. Decoration is not a frosting applied to form. When it’s well orchestrated, it meets our fundamental desire for visual rhythm, order, and variety of scale.

Decoration in some form has been central to every visual culture through all history and across all cultures, until it was banished by the priests of minimalism in the twentieth century. The absence of decoration is one cause of the sterility and impoverishment of much modern architecture.


If decoration is a sin, then I’m a sinner. If I’m going out to a concert, I’d rather go to the Paris Opera, which is gloriously decorated.....


.....than Gehry’s Fisher Center for the Performing Arts, Bard College, New York (above), which is not.
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"Sketches of Frank Gehry" Documentary--2 minute trailer 
Notre Dame Cathedral
Alhambra on Wikipedia
Parthenon on Wikipedia
Frank Gehry on Wikipedia
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addendum: Adolf Loos's 1908 essay "Ornament and Crime" on Wikipedia
Thanks, Digitect and Christoph Heuer

59 comments:

Jason Juta said...

Decoration is joy, history, narrative, dream, hope, fear, culture and creativity. I know where I stand on this matter in no uncertain terms...!

Urchinator said...

I envy folks who lived in eras where the most mundane objects like ovens and hunting rifles were covered with ornate etchings.
Especially sad that the 60's minimalist cinderblock, tile and plexiglass has become the standard for public schools :(

beccastareyes said...

I work at a century-old university where all the old buildings are lovely brick things. My office is in a mid-century cinder-block and steel thing that's got less than one-tenth the charm. The roof is a nice place to look out, though.

Granted, I'd trade a lot of decoration if the designers just put in windows everywhere. Heating costs be damned.

=shane white= said...

Could it also mean from his point of view? That his approach is to rely on the beauty of big bold shapes?

I didn't watch the documentary and don't know the guy or his viewpoints. I think he would agree that without the details from the different eras of architecture that he could not have had that view.

It's the argument of you can't really "have" until you "have not".

=s=

Deborah Paris said...

Amen!

Jason Steffler said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jason Steffler said...

Edit for grammar:

I have never heard of Mr Gehry before today but based on what Ive read here perhaps what he means is; to act on ones desire for aesthetic is selfish and obscures the truth.

One of the most unique things about us humans is "free will". We have all been blessed with it. One consequence of that is greed.

Agapetos said...

If decoration is sin, then the whole India is sin incarnate! :-)

Barbara said...

Well if decoration is a sin, it appears the churches have it all wrong.

Jobot said...

Thank you for this post! It has caused several "minor epiphanies" which I would like to share.

Decoration is what makes something special. A miffin with icing becomes a cupcake. A birthday is just a day with ribbons added. A painting presented in a 10-dollar plastic frame is just a painting--the presenter doesn't care about it. But a painting in an elaborately carved gold-leafed frame becomes Art (note the capital "A"), even if the painting quality is worse.

And how many people enjoy getting a make-over, manicure, tatoo, haircut, etc., (all decorations)just to make themselves feel special.

I know the topic was about architecture, but I think decoration is universal. Even animals use decoration, be it for camoflage, warnings or even mating rituals. Or maybe he was talking about decoration without purpose, but all decoration has a purpose--it makes something special.

Again, thanks for this post!

Steve said...

Yesterday's sketch offers an interesting juxtaposition of mild decoration (the woodstove's subtly doubled lines and modest, yet unnecessary curves) and free-from-sin functionality (the wood chair). The woodstove provides more warmth, in more than one way.

Jobot said...

Amendment:
"miffin" is supposed to be muffin.

Marc said...

The "decoration is a sin" statement seems particularly silly coming from Gehry. He may not add ornamentation or much visual texture to his buildings, but many people would view his buildings as more sculptural expression than architecture. Why would he criticize other architects use of different forms of sculptural expression?

I think a broader definition of the term decoration is needed: making design choices that are purely for visual appeal.

Stories of leaking buildings and polished, curved metal surfaces concentrating sunlight and "cooking" nearby apartments come to mind as examples of Gehry repeatedly making choices that weigh visual appeal over practicality.

I think his buildings are almost entirely "decorative" that sense and there is nothing wrong with that. I think there is room in the wold for a whole spectrum of taste and expression.

Jonathan Mayer said...

James,

Long-time fan of yours. When I was a kid, I checked out Dinotopia at least once a month from the school library. Never read it... but I loved the pictures! I'm an illustrator myself, now.

It's amazing. I'm currently writing my MFA thesis on this very topic, only dealing with Christian liturgical art. Thanks for sharing this post.

I particularly like your phrase, "the priests of modernism." It's a fitting analogy. My thesis is investigating the effect that Modernism had on artwork in the church in light of past iconoclasms. It does seem like the Modernist aesthetic was shoved down the throats of the majority (who resisted it) by a minority who were 'above criticism.' And now that every living generation has this sterile, minimalist aesthetic psychologically ingrained, it's hard to convince people (even Christians) what they are missing out on.

If I'm able to work this post into my thesis, would you mind if I quoted you?

Dan Gurney said...

To add to Jobot's point about animal decorations--

Plants decorate themselves with flowers. I wonder if Mr. Gehry would prefer to live in a world without flowers.

Gordon Napier said...

So-called Modernists are full of absolutist hyperbole. It goes to show what a nasty, intolerant cult so-called Modernism is at heart. To compare decoration to sin is an example of this arrogant, ideological dogmatism.

Jeremy Elder said...

Good points. I'd rather go to the Paris Opera too, but the Walt Disney Concert hall is a beautiful building in it's own right. I may have been a better choice for comparison

Adam Paquette said...

jim you might want to check your link for the second image, its leading me to a photo of what looks like it could only be a prison of some sort?

John-Paul Balmet said...

"If it ain't Baroque, don't fix it." I will refrain from posting an essay on the merits of modernism vs classical ornamentation and simply say well-executed styles can all be beautiful. I even like some brutalist architecture. In the end I think you are right though Jim that ornamentation seems to be the default throughout the ages. I'm sure it will come back I some form. (Deckard's 'modern' neo Egyptian bachelor pad in Blade Runner anyone?)

James Gurney said...

Adam, the last photo shows the concert hall at Bard College that Mr. Gehry designed. I took the photo myself of the view from the parking lot, the one everyone sees as they approach the structure. Is that the image you mean looks like a prison?

Jonathan, thanks, and feel free to quote.

अर्जुन said...

Office buildings, schools, prisons, projects …grey boxes, grey walls, grey culture for grey people devoid of gray matter.

digitect said...

The quote is a paraphrase of the 1908 Adolf Loos article Ornament and Crime. Loos was condemning the Viennese architecture of his time. He was disgusted with buildings covered with fake stone, plaster "frosting" that cost a fortune and yet still fell off, all the while disrespecting the underpaid craftsman of finer materials in his day.

Loos would not have put stucco over the Alhambra, he condemned cheap imitations made of it. And also extravagant buildings requiring the resources of an entire nation to construct, perhaps like Palais Garnier or Guggenheim Bilbao. :)

etc, etc said...

I was in awe of Frank Lloyd Wright in high school. As I have studied the history and traditions of architecture, however, his glory seems to have faded a bit. There is, I believe, a certain style of architecture that appeals to people who know nothing about architecture, and I sometimes wonder if the architects themselves know nothing about it as well.

Rubysboy said...

Points well taken, though all things considered I'd rather have a building that looks great without the need for decorative details than one that looks plain and uninteresting until spectacularly adorned. Are you sure your photo of the Gehry Bard auditorium is of the front of the building? Let's see the backs and sides of both buildings before deciding on one over the other.

Stephen Southerland said...

"Men need not trouble to alter conditions, conditions will so soon alter men. The head can be beaten small enough to fit the hat. Do not knock the fetters off the slave; knock the slave until he forgets the fetters." - Chesterton

Jeanie Chang said...

Perhaps decoration is sin, but sex is apparently a sin as well. Yet sex is completely essential to life. I say all living things are creatures of decoration. Just look at the peacock.

C B Sorge said...

Amen!

I read this as I am painting an ornately carved chaise lounge in the background of a scene. Minimalism's stark dogma against the fun and richness of decoration always put me off.

Lydia Burris said...

Thank you, this post made me laugh gloriously. I am in agreement. I respect the modernist ideas, but yeah, give me grand baroque any day over a flat surface.

Mario said...

I would ask him: "Why is decoration a sin, and the useless, non-functional shapes of your buildings are not?". Some of his most famous buildings are actually completely decorative - a kind of modern sculpture cliché on a gigantic scale.

Gary Yeung said...

Well Said!

abey said...

Wow this sketch is really fresh... love the use of the colors!! :)

Lausanne said...

Hear, Hear!

Don Cox said...

I think any building designed by an architect will include some attempt to make it look good. The problem with very simple, 20C style architecture is that all the architect has to work with are the basic form and proportions. To succeed, he has to have a quite exceptional eye for these.
(For example, Mies.)
More heavily ornamented buildings can look good even if the architect is not first class.

For examples of buildings with no ornament or artistic content, look at castles, forsts and stockades built in war time. (Not fake castles like Neuschwanstein.)

swbyrnenc said...

I can appreciate either aesthetic.

Before making a decision about the concert, I would need to know what the performances are... and, of course, the fact that one would take me to Paris would make a difference, too.

My Pen Name said...

decoration is a sin, but creating useless, wasteful, poorly designed buildings that
a. turn the sidewalks across the street to 140 degrees when the sun hits them
b. are hazards during the winter because they hurtle snow and ice on pedestrians (ohio)
c. give people vertigo (MIT, where he arrogantly disregarded prof's needs and wants so there is no private space - does HE work that way?)
d. design the building so poorly women are afraid to work there at night (same building) because ghery thought it would be great if people were 'surprised' by who was around the corner...
I really, really hate that guy, as a human being, as an architect.
In fact he is quite inhuman. both Kenneth Clark, and I believe, Jacob Collins, have pointed out that architecture has become remarkably inhumane since architects no longer train as artists.

My Pen Name said...

PS, I believe Ghery's buildings are nothing but hyped up 'novelty architecture' like one found along Alantantic city in its amusement park days. He's also sort of 'branding' for the global elite... in twenty years, most people will hopefully recognize them for the eyesores they are.

My Pen Name said...

One last point (sorry for multiple posts) it was Pugin, the great gothic revival architect, who came up with the modern idea of form and function - he thought it was ridiculous to build buildings intended for the climate of southern greece in England (classical architecture), in parts of England where, for example, brick was plentiful, he would design churches in with them.

He also pointed out that much of what may seem decrative in gothic architecture is not- finials, for example helped add weight and support for flying buttresses. the decoration reflected or emphasized this, it wasn't just arbitrarily put on - and the decoration helped humanize the architecture.

here is a famous pugin illustration contrasting the 'coldness' of the englightment vs the gothic:
http://blog.lib.umn.edu/zerot001/architecture/stuff%20011.jpg

Peggy said...

The view of the Fisher Center from the parking lot is unfair to the structure. What a shame that is what is seen first! More accurate images of this unusual building can be seen by googling "Fisher Center images", or by going here: http://www.contemporist.com/2008/02/13/richard-b-fisher-center-for-the-performing-arts/
But in looking at Gehry's many wildly flamboyant designs, I wonder what on earth he means by "Decoration is sin"! A great many of his buildings are highly decorative, such as his Dancing Fish restaurant in Kobe, Japan...And Tiffany's has a line of Frank Gehry jewellry!

Arlyn said...

I love the decor on buildings! It's fun to try and find all the little details.

jeff said...

I'm not a big fan of Frank Gehry but he's a modernist and this is how he was trained and his beliefs on what architecture should be and do reflect that philosophy.

On a side note he designed a building for MIT which is now suing him for a long list of design flaws. The building leaks, and there are a host of other problems.

A.Decker said...

Modern architecture is mostly just dull to me. Like the common idea of work: forced efficiency with the fun of living ruled out. The Fisher Center looks like a warehouse with a wavy roof.

Tristan Elwell said...

Oh please. Gehry's non-structural, non-functional forms are nothing but decoration.

Chan said...

Mr Gurney you have never failed to post something of unique relevance for the art community. This is probably one of the biggest problems that separate the art world, that is, the great disparity amongst the so-called "highbrow and lowbrow art". It has come to a point where some feel artistic beauty in some sense can be a sin~~

Petr Mores said...

I'd just like to put this in the context: Loos's essay about ornament being a crime was published in 1908, when "bad taste" in European architecture meant prefabricated pseudo-rennaisance everywhere. The form language of that architectonic style had degraded into mere trite convention. People like Loos and the Bauhas school wanted to swing the pendulum, go back to essential creativity in architecture and not let bad architects get away with covering their lack of skill by conventional ornament (or ivy ;). However, their minimalist aesthetic is these days as much an excuse for bad architects as was prefabricated ornament in their time.

I spent ten years living in Brno, Czech republic, which has many first-wave modernist buildings by people like Loos or Miese van der Rohe. They are beautiful. They have genuine charisma, boldness, and purpose about them. I felt the aesthetic power of these buildings even when I was a child and knew nothing at all about art history.

History of art is a history of reactions and finding a balance. The balance today is different than it was in 1908. Which is why Loos's idea sounds slightly out of place in the mouth of Mr. Gehry.

etc, etc said...

Reading Loos' Wikipedia biography, it's just too easy to dismiss his radical aesthetic as merely an extension of a radical personality.

Steven K said...

His philosophy explains why Gehry's building aren't worth decorating. QED.

Kat said...

Saying stupid things like "Decoration is a sin" is a sin.

KB said...

The real problem with the Gehry "Center for the Performing Arts" (8 syllables where the simple "Opera" would do) is that it has no form following its function. To look at it: Police station? Warehouse? Church? All of the above?

Harrison said...

The best architect that uses form with the structural elements is Santiago Calatrava - in my opinion. Check out his structures...

ivo.de.wispelaere said...

Modernism is something today's uninspired/untalented designer (let it be a graphic designer, an architect, ...) can hide himself/herself behind, so that he/she can design the same tight and white shapes over and over again...

For example when you look at modern interior design (we had an interior architect in our house yesterday for some improvements on our interior), you see that they all come up with the same interior solutions for e.g. the fireplace.
Inspiration and originality seems to be replaced by templated-based thinking...

My Pen Name said...

To look at it: Police station? Warehouse? Church? All of the above?
:)

Walter Wick said...

I have been to the Garnier, and it is indeed quite an experience to attend an opera there. But it seems to me, even considering the classical roots of the architecture, the over-the-top opulence is born of its own place and time – 19th century Paris. I read Gehry's comment differently, simply as a declaration of his own place and time – the architectural style he most identifies with. His phrase, "decoration is sin", a tenet of that style, is added for emphasis, not as a value judgement for those of us who enjoy glorious traditions of the past. His comment helps us understand how his style emerged: if he had been concerned about niches, finials, and decorative trim, he could never have arrived at the sculpture forms he is now known for. In doing so, he may have traded one "sin" for another, but that is in the eye of the beholder. I'd like to see the Walt Disney Concert Hall someday. And consider this James, it has a built-in Gallery Flambeau!

etc, etc said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
etc, etc said...

No "over-the-top" opulence in the Baroque? It seems obvious that opulence was always a legitimate goal prior to modernism. I think it's naive not to see a correlation between modernism's anti-ornamental aesthetic and Marxist philosophy, and that it has an unlikely bedfellow in Protestantism.

Walter Wick said...

Yes, much over-the-top opulence in the Baroque too. "born of" was a poor choice of words. Let's say the Garnier reflects the ambitions of a major European power in the 19th Century; the Fisher Center, that of a small college in upstate New York in the 21st. I think there is a correlation between the anti-ornamental aesthetic and Protestantism. Growing up in New England, with it's lightly ornamented, undecorated churches, factories and farms, one becomes accustomed to the aesthetic of pure shape and form. The phrase "decoration is a sin" does not seem particularly radical or modern to me.

Keith Parker said...

If done right, I think decoration is a virtue.

Daniel Silberberg said...

Something tells me Gehry was speaking in jest. After all, saying something is "a sin," doesn't necessarily mean it's not enjoyable.

Pieter said...

I just wanted to add that I agree with Walter Wick's interpretation.

He does not simply say 'decoration is sin'. He says, 'to me decoration is sin, because I adhere to the modernist philosophy, by which I was brought up'.

I think it's a mistake to label all modernists as anti-traditional. I know plenty of modernist oriented people who love classical art, but considered it a bygone artform for a bygone society.

Ian Cooke said...

It is funny that I stumbled across this somehow on the internet. As a student of design in the present it is very interesting to see other people's view on things he said. I am assuming that (from the comments I have read) that none of the people commenting were educated in art or design.
Now for Frank Gehry; It is funny to me that he says this because when you actually pick apart a Frank Gehry building you realize that all the crazy forms flowing in and out are decoration. They are not necessary and therefore are some form of decoration. If you look into Danish design and designer such as Hans Wegner, Paul Kjaerholm, and Arne Jacobson you realise that minimalism is a very hard thing to do well. Their designs are beautiful, and world renowned, and true minimalism should be looked at where the form becomes the decoration. Take a look at any of their hand crafted chairs up close and you will see that decoration has been saved for only what is necessary. I.e. a joint in a leg, or the shape of the arm rest. If you look at the history of Danish design this came about because of WWII and their lack of new materials, so they learned to perfect form and create beauty in the details. Decoration is everywhere, but what I think he really means is that extra, unnecessary decoration is sin which agree or not good minimalism can be very beautiful if you really take a good look. Not the ugly schools and building created by some of todays architects. And yes, I believe Gehry is a Hypocrite.